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One Offering to Watch Unfold in 2012: UNIT4 Business Analytics Apps

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: January 17 2012

For me, the third week of December 2011 was a week of revelations of sorts in the realm of enterprise applications. Amid all the IT punditry/buzzword talk throughout the year about cloud computing, analytics, mobility, social, and in-memory, there were two concrete announcements in mid-December from two vendors that gave me pause. Both vendor product announcements are still far away from their commercial use in earnest, but their visionary nature is what had impressed the usually skeptical analyst in me (to the point of being accused of Drinking the Kool-Aid).

First, at SAP’s Influencers Summit 2011 in Boston, I learned that the much-publicized SAP HANA offering is not merely an in-memory server blade appliance for quick analytics and data crunching. Rather, it is the underpinning of SAP’s future architecture, both on-premise and in the cloud, and it is a general-purpose database in its own right. Look for an in-depth article on this topic, and you can read this 2011 review article by TEC’s analysts in the meantime.

Another revelation took place during UNIT4’s winter Boston tour in the very same week.



Dispense with “More of the Same” First

There were many familiar themes from the vendor’s previous similar tours and events. As a refresher, UNIT4 was founded in 1980, it is based in the Netherlands, and is today a top 10 mid-market enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor worldwide.  The company has over 6,000 customers, over 10,000 global deployments, and over 2 million users in over 100 countries worldwide. For the first three quarters in 2011, UNIT4 reported US$433 million revenues, up 10 percent over the 2010 results. UNIT4’s core solution sets to date are as follows:

  1. Agresso Business World (ABW) – a full-fledged ERP suite for upper mid-market services sector (public and private) with standardized and homogenous IT environments that value post-implementation agility

  2. Coda Financials – a best-of-breed interoperable financial management system for the mid- and high-end market in multiple sectors (see here for more information)

  3. FinancialForce.com – a thoroughbred software as a service (SaaS) financials and professional services automation (PSA) solution co-owned with salesforce.com (see here for more information)


During 2011, there was an interesting (but not surprising in these days of austerity measures) change in percentages between UNIT4’s government and private sectors services verticals, with respect to new business deals, whereby the latter was up nine percent over the prior year. The vendor continued with “major replacement deals” of older SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft Dynamics installs at service "businesses living in change" (BLINCTM). Reportedly, there were over 30 such replacement deals largely due to the incumbent ERP systems’ inflexibility, which was over 10 percent jump compared to 2010.  The average new business deal-size for Agresso was reportedly up by 29 percent to US$648k, and the ABW ERP system’s post-implementation agility and Coda’s interoperability continue to be one of the top three deal drivers.

New! -- Rethinking Enterprise Analytics

But what was really new this time was the sneak-peek preview of an upcoming and brand-new analytics offering called Business Analytics Apps. These solutions will unify the functional capabilities and know-how that came from the recent UNIT4’s acquisitions of Exie, Komsult, Prosoft, and Ocra (the latter, a financial consolidation product, dates back to Coda’s independent days). BLINC solutions were initially envisioned as another add-on application to ABW and Coda Financials in the realm of corporate performance management (CPM). Other similar add-on solutions from the so-called “Paint your app” approach are in the realm of sustainability, talent management, Topaz software learning system, etc. (see the related article here).

But then in this thought process the company had an epiphany of sorts and saw in the bigger picture an opportunity to do something different from what the rest of the market has been doing. Namely, if consumers can, in Apple’s “There’s an app for that” manner, find and download applications from publicly available “app stores” to do virtually anything (from juvenile and asinine to serious and useful purposes), how about enabling mid-level managers and non-IT savvy users to do the same in the realm of enterprise?

These folks have been under tremendous pressure to make right decisions in near real time, but have been unable to use simple tools to that end. Acronyms such as business intelligence (BI), CPM, enterprise performance management (EPM), etc., just confuse the non-techie buyers who just want fast current data in easy-to-read formats to make an informed decision.

To make things worse, BI/CPM packages require lengthy selection processes, executive budgetary review, and approvals, even lengthier (and expensive) deployments with hefty professional services, and whatnot before line of business (LoB) users can even begin to use it properly. In addition, companies struggle with where to start from when it comes to using analytics apps, as BI is frustratingly focused on IT tools (ever heard of pesky report writers, OLAP cubes, and data marts?).

What if instead of traditional big investment, high risk, complex, and slow-poking enterprise-wide BI packages users could simply discover and download appetizing tapas (or sushi, if you prefer)--like simple and fast applications that present small investment and low risk? The range of prices that we are talking about here is often within the purchasing power of mid-level managers. In other words, an LoB user might even be able to authorize the request herself/himself, without bothering the C-level executives and IT department. Think of turnkey, purpose-built analytic applications to solve specific vertical market or departmental problems, such as the following:

  • How to boost sales and improve cash flow by a certain percentage in that niche market?

  • How to secure a certain tangible outcome (or avoid risks) from the latest merger or divestiture?

  • How to improve the accuracy of our forecast by a certain percentage?

  • How to decrease waste by a certain percentage in all of (or some of) our offices or departments?


There’s an App for That

Let me state clearly that I haven’t yet seen these apps by UNIT4 in action, and many concrete architectural details are yet to be unveiled. The briefing was also, well, too brief for us to flesh out many more details, other than the fact that the product is based on Java and runs on Microsoft SQL Server. Each application and subscribing user are assigned a database and OLAP cube instance to.

Still, the vendor’s track record shows lots of delivery on its ambitious promises in the past, and I am happy to take a leap of faith. In any case, the touted design principles of these upcoming BLINC apps are as follows:

  • A template-based rapid deployment approach tailored for certain verticals (i.e., government, higher-education, and professional services), with about 90 percent functionality out-of-the-box, while the rest can be tweaked by users (DIY) and/or consultants

  • A turnkey approach with some bundled professional services available, if required

  • The analytics apps will be available in the app store and will be enabled for mobile devices including tablets (first via HTML5 on Androids, and later on iPad)

  • The “pay as you use” pricing model

  • There will be a builder tool (with no programming language coding required) that both partners and customers can use to build their own apps on top of it, a perhaps even submit it back to the app store (for other folks’ use and their royalties and loyalty program rewards)


UNIT4 is currently finalizing which templates will be offered among the foundational products. Top template needs indicated by the customers are the following: balanced scorecard, financial/statutory reporting, business planning, budgeting, and cost and cash management. The BLINC Solutions Wave 1 is slated for June 2012 (and the traditional Grape Escape event), and should feature the general availability of the Business Analytics AppStore and the release of the “Build & Go” Usability. December 2012 should feature the Wave 2 and release the tablet experience pack.

A Word from an Early Adopter

A featured prototype customer was Tollpost Globe AS, a Dutch country-wide distribution network for parcels and groupage (shared freight) services. Over a period of four years, the shipper reportedly went from a loss of US$13 million a year to becoming Europe’s most profitable transportation company, in great part due to UNIT4 Business Analytics. Since the company implemented the analytics in 2003, the solution has helped it save at least $5 million on the bottom line each year.

Tollpost reportedly used UNIT4’s Build & Go SDK tool to create an app for tracking and returning palettes, which reportedly saved it US$300k in a year. The company is periodically swapping in and out 20 different BLINC apps, often adding 3 or 4 and dropping 3 or 4 on any given year. The platform stays up for adding and subtracting apps as they all interrelate, but the per user/per app cost goes away when the company drops any specific app.

The figure below shows a screen shot of a mock up solution, just to give us the flavor of what is coming. Logically, UNIT4 will first attempt to tap into its vast install base.

screenshot_tn.png

I look forward to mid-2012 and the follow up briefing with the generally available app store. Hopefully by then UNIT4 will have answers to questions such as those regarding the integration framework to both UNIT4 solutions and non-UNIT4 products (i.e., SAP, Oracle, etc.). I would not be surprised to see the company draw on the interoperability experience by Coda, which often serves as a multi-source financials repository for its customers. For its part, ABW uses Web Services to port data in and out. The details will also likely come about what happens to the dedicated OLAP cube and database instance when a customer cancels the subscription (i.e., are the data setups kept somewhere in case of the customer’ return, and how?).

In the meantime, here are the opinions and recommendations by Cindy Jutras of the Mint Jutras Blog and Brian Sommer of the Enterprise Irregulars Blog. Dear readers, what are your opinions and comments, and how do you feel about leveraging app stores in the realm of enterprise?
 
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